Monday, December 27, 2010

New US Polling Results on Evolution: What Do They Mean?

• Nearly eighty percent of Americans believe God played a role in the development of the human species.
• More than fifty percent of Americans believe in evolution.
• Only sixteen percent of Americans really understand and believe in evolution.

All of these are reasonable interpretations of the latest Gallup poll on American attitudes toward evolution, which, incidentally, have not markedly changed in the last generation.

Is the glass half-empty or half-full? Well, that may depend on how desperate you are for good news.

Gallup headlined its report with the negative, but put a sugar cube at the bottom of the bitter cup of tea, i.e. in the subtitle:
Four in 10 Americans Believe in Strict Creationism
Belief in evolutionary origins of humans slowly rising, however
by Frank Newport

PRINCETON, NJ -- Four in 10 Americans, slightly fewer today than in years past, believe God created humans in their present form about 10,000 years ago. Thirty-eight percent believe God guided a process by which humans developed over millions of years from less advanced life forms, while 16%, up slightly from years past, believe humans developed over millions of years, without God's involvement. (full story, with numbers and graphs)
By contrast, veteran skeptic Michael Shermer simply tweeted his satisfaction, "New Gallup poll shows acceptance of evolution increasing!" and cited a post by the National Center for Science Education, which had likewise led with the positive. Maybe that was because he had also just rejoiced at the fifth anniversary of the Kitzmiller v. Dover Board of Education case, which had dealt a blow to the attempt to sneak cretinism creationism through the back door of the schools by teaching "intelligent design."

The increase is indeed slight: up from 14 percent in 2008 (the low was 9 percent in 1982 and 1999, the average, just over 11 percent from 1982 through 2007). Maybe I'm just an inveterate pessimist, but—stop to think about this—we're still at 16 percent!. For me, the poll reveals the sobering truth that only about one in six Americans believes in the universally acknowledged scientific explanation for the development of life on our planet. Rejecting the "theory of evolution" is only slightly less scary than rejecting the "theory of gravitation."  (Maybe I should have said the glass was only one-sixth full.)

That forty percent of Americans reject the most basic evidence of the archaeological (not to mention, fossil and astrophysical) record is astounding but no longer surprising, if I may put it that way. After all, 79 percent of us believe in miracles, and 62 percent believe in the devil.

Over at Archaeology magazine, scholars are debating (and rejecting) the thesis that a comet's collision with the earth caused mass extinctions—and the disappearance of the early human "Clovis culture" (named for the site in New Mexico where distinctive and sophisticated stone tools were found).  That happened 12,900 years ago. According to nearly half of our population, then, these sophisticated ancestors cannot have existed. And what about all the whack jobs (regularly featured on the History Channel, alas), who insist on the existence of a great, amazingly sophisticated, vanished civilization—so utterly vanished, in fact, that it left behind not a document and not a pot shard, in short, not any of the usual material traces of a civilization—and instead (how, then ??) only the message for posterity that it had been, well, really smart and really special. The adherents all claim that this mysterious disappearing act took place around 12,000 years ago. Even this crackpot theory would seem to become an impossibility for believers in recent human origins.The question, then, is: are we dealing with the same nuts, or is this a case of mixed nuts?

Personally, I was most intrigued by the statistic that "Thirty-eight percent believe God guided a process by which humans developed over millions of years from less advanced life forms." It's not surprising. The mockery of all but the most unforgiving and self-congratulatory atheists notwithstanding, it is well known that large numbers of religious people in the west believe in evolution in the sense that they acknowledge some of its key premises, at least as concerns starting assumptions and consequences:  a very ancient earth and the development of more complex life forms—including humans (this is crucial)—from simpler ones. The Papacy accepts this (1, 2). The Chief Rabbi of England accepts this (1, 2). Mainstream American Protestant theologians accept this.

The question is: is that really belief in evolution?  Strictly speaking (which should be the only manner of speaking about science): no, or at least, not necessarily.  Evolution is an entirely natural process, requiring and allowing no supernatural intervention. The essence is the appearance and preservation of advantageous chance mutations. Chance and nature are the key: the changes occur by chance, and on the genetic level (this is the mechanism that Darwin could not yet explain).  Useful changes are retained in the evolutionary process to the extent that they render the possessor more adaptable, better able to survive.

Unfortunately, we'd really need to drill down deeper than the questions allow. It all really depends on what "guided" means.  There are two possibilities. If the thirty-eight percent really believe that "God guided" the process of evolution from the start in any meaningful sense, such as "intelligent design," or intervened at any point, then that's just hogwash from a scientific point of view (and not even theologically justifiable in some cases). If, by contrast, these respondents in effect adopt something closer to a deist position whereby a supreme being set the processes of natural law in motion at the start of time and thereafter refrained from meddling (again: without any specific intended outcome), then that's somewhat different. Science cannot really address that possibility, for evolution is more concerned with the processes, mechanisms, and results.  A concept of God as merely first cause would, in theory, allow for the scientific process of evolution to unfold. Whether such a notion is scientifically tenable, and what a God confined to that domain would imply for many traditional religions, those are another matter.

So, whether the 38 percent are closer to the 40 percent or the 16 percent is the key question: Do 78 percent of Americans reject or fail to understand evolution? (coincidentally or otherwise, a figure close to that of the 82 percent that believe in God) Or can we instead say that 54 percent of Americans accept evolution?

Bottom line:  We have overcome some of our deepest societal barriers and taboos. We have elected a black president.  We have (in Massachusetts and a few other states) recognized the full range of gay rights, including marriage (42 percent of Americans now accept it). We have, most recently, eliminated discrimination against gays in the military (77 percent of Americans support that). And yet, we shy away from embracing the simple, overwhelmingly demonstrated, objective truths of nature and science.

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